The origins of Bolshevism: Plekhanov's "The Tasks of the Social-Democrats in the Famine"

Author: 

George Plekhanov

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
Introduction, by Sean Matgamna: How “many ideas to few people” serves mass agitation.

Earlier articles have recounted the pre-history of the Russian Marxist movement in revolutionary populism. Before we go on to describe the work of the first Russian Marxist groups, the Group for the Emancipation of Labour and later its offshoot, the Iskra/Zarya group, we will first ask, with George Plekhanov: what is the socialist movement, and what do socialists do? Plekhanov, the pioneer of the Russian Marxist movement, answered this fundamental question in his 1891 text The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats in the Famine. This is one of the basic documents of Russian socialism and we print part of it here.

The turn made to mass agitation among the workers in the mid-1890s was directly inspired by the pamphlet, On Agitation by Kremer and Martov. The whole question had already been brilliantly outlined by Plekhanov here (and also in work by Pavel Axelrod).

Plekhanov’s exposition of what Marxist socialists are and do, and of the relationship of socialist agitation against details of the life imposed on workers by capitalism to our socialist overview and its propagation, is also as relevant to our work at the beginning of the 21st century as to that of the pioneer Russian socialists.

My comments on the excerpts from Plekhanov that follow are in bold type.

SM


If you had put such a question [what is the socialist movement? what do socialists do?] to a socialist in the [18]30s, to one of the followers of the famous Fourier, for instance, he would have replied more or less in the following manner:

Our brilliant teacher discovered and expounded in his works a whole series of truths, whose existence mankind had not previously suspected. On the basis of these discoveries he worked out a detailed plan of the new social order which alone can save man from his countless moral and material misfortunes. The contemporary socialist movement, the true socialist movement and worthy of the name, is resolved to spread the ideas of our teacher and to realise them in practice.

An answer of this sort would have been quite correct in the [18]30s. At that time the socialist movement was really concerned to spread the ideas of the various schools of socialism and to try to realise them in practice. In these circumstances each school clearly thought that the teaching of its particular founder was the true socialism.

Some of them, the followers of Englishman Robert Owen and Frenchman, Etienne Cabet, for example, formed utopian socialist colonies in some wilderness or other — Cabet in Texas, where the colony survived for some decades after its foundation in the 1840s — intending these to be the beginning of the new society.

But now things are different. To a contemporary socialist the socialist movement does not look anything like it did to a socialist in the [18]30s.

Even shortly before the revolutionary year of 1848 there emerged among the socialists men who looked at socialism in a completely new perspective. Seen in this new perspective the principal error of previous socialists was precisely the fact that [for them] ‘Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into propaganda and the practical implementation of their social plans.’

The socialists with the new outlook saw in the future history of the civilised world something else, something incomparably more promising.

What precisely did the socialists with the new outlook see in it? Above all class struggle, the struggle of the exploited with the exploiters, the proletariat with the bourgeoisie.

In addition they saw in it the inevitability of the impending triumph of the proletariat, the fall of the present bourgeois social order, the socialist organisation of production and the corresponding alteration in the relationships between people, i.e. even the destruction of classes, among other things.

Although they knew full well (better than their predecessors) that the socialist revolution involves a complete transformation in all social relationships, the Socialists of the new tendency did not concern themselves at all with working out a plan for the future organisation of society.

They thought this a complete waste of time because the details of the future order would be determined in their own time by circumstances that it was impossible to foresee and its general principles would be sufficiently determined by a scientific critique of existing social relationships, i.e. by a critique based not on the sympathies and antipathies of the reformers but on an examination of the historical development of the present social order.

The Socialists with the new outlook broke once and for all with utopias and took their stand on the basis of science….

If for the followers of [Marxist] scientific socialism the whole future history of bourgeois society resolves itself in the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, all their practical tasks are prompted by precisely this class struggle.

Standing resolutely on the side of the proletariat, the new Socialists do everything in their power to facilitate and hasten its victory. But what exactly can they do in this case?

A necessary condition for the victory of the proletariat is its recognition of its own position, its relations with its exploiters, its historic role and its socio-political tasks.

For this reason the new Socialists consider it their principal, perhaps even their only, duty to promote the growth of this consciousness among the proletariat, which for short they call its class consciousness.

The whole success of the socialist movement is measured for them in terms of the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat. Everything that helps this growth they see as useful to their cause: everything that slows it down as harmful.

Anything that has no effect one way or the other is of no consequence for them, it is politically uninteresting…

There is no doubt that the development of capitalism hastens the social revolution.

Consequently, every bourgeois whose activity furthers the development of capitalism hastens the social revolution. But it would be very strange if, because of this, someone were to think of the bourgeois activists as Socialists.

Even people whose activity is directly aimed at fighting socialism can hasten the social revolution.

Some German Social Democrats think that the famous law of exclusion against the Socialists [issued by the “Iron Chancellor”, Otto von Bismarck, in 1878] has to some extent helped their party. If this view is correct then it follows that Bismarck, in introducing the law of exclusion, has by that very fact hastened the social revolution in Germany.

But who would describe as a Socialist the man who was trying to deal the death-blow to the Social Democratic Party?

I reiterate that, however much you have discussed the consequences of your political activity, you will only be recognised as a Socialist if your activity has directly facilitated the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat. If it does not exert this direct influence then you are not a Socialist at all, even though the more or less remote consequences of your non-socialist activity may bring some degree of advantage for the cause of socialism.…

In identifying the most important and the most direct sign of socialist activity, I do not wish to say that anyone who does not want to betray the Red Flag should unfailingly engage either in writing socialist books or in distributing them and generally in propaganda among the proletariat and its organisations.

Individuals, belonging to the socialist party, may be involved in other matters without ceasing to be Socialists for a single moment. Let us suppose that the socialist party of a particular country has decided to arrange secret hiding places for its members who are facing government persecution. It entrusts the matter to me and to several other comrades. We willingly and zealously carry out this assignment.

Our individual activity is not directly aimed at the development of the class consciousness of the proletariat. But is it conceivable that, in doing this, we cease to be Socialists? No one could say that.

But why should they not say that?

Because, in engaging in this activity, not only did we remain members of the party that directly promotes the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat but we also undertook this activity on its instructions.

Another example: the socialist party of a particular country decides that in the near future it will have to come out into open conflict with the government. The success of its struggle depends to a great extent of course on how the army behaves at the decisive moment. And so the party assigns a certain number of its members to engage in revolutionary propaganda in the army.

The soldiers may of course be regarded as proletarians in military uniform. Consequently, as far as the people who explain the ideas of socialism to them are concerned, the question that interests us cannot even arise.

But [that question] is entirely appropriate for the people who deal exclusively with the officers. Do these people cease to be Socialists? Not at all. Why not, then? Once again because their activity is determined by the needs of the party that directly promotes the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat.

And if they had not belonged to it? In that case they would have ceased to be Socialists because then their work would immediately have lost any connection with the direct and immediate socialist cause.

One could cite very many such examples. But my view, I hope, is sufficiently clear. It is expressed in its entirety in the epigraph to this letter: Without workers who are conscious of their class interests there can be no socialism…

The conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is not the contrivance of the Socialists of a particular school and is by no means a tactical device dreamed up by a fanatical revolutionary, but is that same fateful historical inevitability as was the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the feudal aristocracy in its own time...

But having said that, Plekhanov qualifies it. What follows, about the nature and interconnection of agitation and propaganda, will guide the consistently revolutionary Russian Marxists during the expansion of the labour movement in the 1890s and after. In What Is To Be Done, Lenin will base much of his argument against the so-called “Economists” on this work of Plekhanov’s. See the chapter entitled “How Martynov Rendered Plekhanov More Profound”.

If I assert that the promotion of the growth of the class consciousness of the proletariat is the sole purpose and the direct and sacred duty of the Socialists, then this does not mean that the contemporary Socialists stand for propaganda, for propaganda alone, and for nothing but propaganda.

In the broad sense of the word this is perhaps true, but only in the very broad sense.

When at the International Congress in Paris in 1889 the Socialists resolved to strive for the eight-hour day they obviously had it in mind that workers’ demonstrations in favour of their resolution would be a marvellous method of propagating their ideas. But a demonstration is at the same time a method of agitation.

In general it is not easy to draw the line between agitation and what is usually called propaganda.

Agitation is also propaganda, but propaganda that takes place in particular circumstances, that is in circumstances in which even those who would not normally pay any attention are forced to listen to the propagandist’s words. Propaganda is agitation that is conducted in the normal everyday course of the life of a particular country.

Agitation is propaganda occasioned by events that are not entirely ordinary and that provoke a certain upsurge in the public mood. Socialists would be very bad politicians if they were not to use such notable events for their own ends.

Let us suppose that the agitation in favour of the eight-hour day has been crowned with success. Frightened by constantly growing pressure from the workers’ movement, the bourgeoisie has yielded. In all civilised countries the law has limited the working day to eight hours.

This is a great victory for socialism but the question arises:

There were of course Socialists among them. There were many Socialists who played a leading role, stepping out in front and sweeping the hesitant and the indecisive along in their wake.

But were there really then people who were hesitant and indecisive? Why did they hesitate, why were they indecisive?...

Probably because they had not fully appreciated the benefits of the eight-hour day and because, on a general level, not having assimilated socialist ideas, they were not yet imbued with the thirst for the battle for a better future that is aroused by a consistent and ordered revolutionary outlook.

In a word, these people were not yet Socialists. But now look at what has happened.

The Socialists have drawn people who were not yet Socialists into the struggle for a cause that will be very useful to socialism. In other words, people who were not yet Socialists have already been working for socialism.

And it is agitation that has done this!

Because of this Socialists can use for the cause not just the forces that belong to them at the present time, but also those that will belong to them only subsequently. What has happened is rather like drawing on the socialist account which history will pay for. And this payment will bring the victory of socialism significantly closer.

Propaganda, in the strict sense of the word, would lose all historical significance if it were not accompanied by agitation.

Propaganda conveys the correct views to dozens, hundreds, thousands of people. But people holding the correct views only become historical activists when they exert a direct influence on public life. And influence on the public life of contemporary civilised countries is unthinkable without influence on the mass, i.e. without agitation. (In barbaric despotisms [such as Tsarist Russia] things are different: there the mass has no importance. But we are not talking about them.)

Consequently agitation is essential for any party that wishes to have historical meaning. A sect may be content with propaganda in the narrow sense of the word, but a political party never.

If I had to clarify further the relationship between agitation and propaganda I should add that the propagandist conveys many ideas to a single person or to a few people, whereas the agitator conveys only one or a few ideas, but he conveys them to a whole mass of people, sometimes to almost the entire population of a particular locality.

But history is made by the mass.

Consequently agitation is the aim of propaganda: I conduct propaganda so that I shall have the opportunity to transfer to agitation.

However, let us return to our example.

We supposed that the Socialists had managed to secure an eight-hour day by law. Such a law brings very great benefit to the working class. Even the least advanced, least comprehending and most backward workers soon become convinced of this once it has become a reality.

And they all know that the eight-hour day was introduced on the initiative of the Socialists.

For this reason all workers, even the most backward, will be thoroughly convinced that the realisation of at least some socialist demands benefits the working class. And this knowledge will in any case bring them incomparably closer to a complete sympathy with socialism than a complete indifference to socialist teaching would have done. But let us go further.

By increasing the worker’s leisure time, the eight-hour day gives him the opportunity for greater intellectual development and consequently for the easier assimilation of socialist ideas. That means that in this way too the eight-hour day brings nearer the inevitable reckoning: it ‘hastens the social revolution’...

We have seen that [social relations in Russia] are changing very rapidly. The mutual relationship between the social forces does, clearly, change with them. The autocracy weakens as the historical soil that has nurtured it crumbles and decomposes.

At the same time some forces are growing stronger and stronger, and it is the collision with these forces that drives [autocracy] to its ruin.

This means that, while our propaganda is training revolutionaries, history creates the revolutionary milieu essential for their activity; while we are preparing the leaders of the revolutionary mass, the officers and NCOs of the revolutionary army, this very army is being created by the inevitable course of social development.

But [if that is so, must we not] describe our activity as fruitless or unproductive? On the contrary, is it not absolutely necessary and uniquely productive from the revolutionary point of view?

On the other hand it is clear that, as long as the individuals that we have ‘propagandised’ exert no direct revolutionary influence on the mass, they are only its leaders in theory.

If they are to become its leaders in reality they will have to influence them in the revolutionary sense.

That is where agitation comes into its own. Thanks to it the necessary link between the ‘heroes’ and the ‘crowd’, between the mass and its leaders is established and strengthened. The more strained matters become, the more the old social edifice will rock, and the more rapidly the revolution approaches, the more important agitation will become.

To it belongs the principal role in the drama that we call the social revolution.
From this it follows that, if the Russian Socialists want to play an active role in the coming Russian revolution, they must know how to become agitators.

This is essential. But it is not easy. The task of the agitator involves putting into circulation in each particular case the maximum possible number of revolutionary ideas in a form that is accessible to the mass.

For every mistake he makes one way or another a harsh punishment awaits the agitator.

If he overestimates the revolutionary mood of the mass he will at best remain unintelligible, but he may be ridiculed or even assaulted.

If, on the other hand, because of extreme caution he puts to the mass demands that it has already outgrown in its rapid revolutionary development, he will fall into the awkward position of agitator-brake, an agitator who inspires the crowd with ‘moderation and tender conscience’.

The whole skill of the agitator consists in his ability to avoid such excesses.

But if he has this skill he has no need to fear failure. His task will be carried out of its own accord. You may perhaps say that he is giving the mass nothing: he is only giving fully conscious expression to the attitude that it already holds, which it is not itself aware of. But in this lies the secret of his influence and the guarantee of his future successes.

Seeing in his words merely the expression of its own demands, the mass willingly follows him. And… it may even itself push ahead of the agitator.

Realising that only yesterday it was still frightened by its boldness and novelty it rapidly goes further, inclining to more daring demands.

In this way, learning from its own experience, carried along by its own movement, encouraged by its own success, it gradually, but on the other hand assuredly, becomes more and more revolutionary, until in the end it deals with a single decisive movement the death-blow to the existing order.

But when the edifice of this order, made shaky, weak and decrepit by history, has shattered, new tasks will unfold before it, it will have to build things better in its new home, not falling into the net of the political exploiters, flatterers and tricksters.

Then the services and the directions of its devoted agitator-friends will be just as important for it as they were earlier in the heart of the struggle with the old order.

Orators are born, according to the well-known saying. Agitators are also ‘born’ and no science can replace the inborn agitational gift. Agitation cannot be conducted according to a particular pattern. But this does not prevent us from thinking about its significance and preparing for it with all the means at our disposal at a time when we can foresee that there will soon be a broad scope for agitational activity.

A necessary condition for this activity is a merger of the revolutionary forces that have already been prepared.

Through circle propaganda we can involve people who have no connection with one another and do not even suspect one another’s existence. Of course the absence of organisation always affects propaganda, but it does not make it impossible.

In epochs of great social upheaval, when the political atmosphere is charged with electricity and when here and there for the most varied, most unforeseen reasons there are increasingly frequent explosions that testify to the approach of the revolutionary storm, in short when it is necessary either to agitate or to rally to the flag — in these epochs only organised revolutionary forces can exert a serious influence on the course of events.

The individual is then powerless, and only units of a higher order are equal to the revolutionary task: revolutionary organisations.

Organisation is the first, the essential step. However insignificant the prepared revolutionary forces of contemporary Russia, they will be increased tenfold by organisation.

Counting their forces and stationing them where appropriate, the revolutionaries set to work.

By means of spoken and printed propaganda they spread the correct view of the causes of the present famine through all strata of the population.

Wherever the mass is not yet sufficiently advanced to understand their teaching, they give it, as it were, object lessons. They appear wherever it protests, they protest with it, they explain to it the meaning of its own movement and hence they increase its revolutionary preparedness.

In this way the elemental movements of the mass gradually merge with the conscious revolutionary movement, and the idea that the Zemskii sobor [the Constituent Assembly] must be summoned becomes increasingly popular: the Russian people becomes more and more convinced that it must snatch its fate from the hands of tsarist officials.

This is one side of things. On the other side we must ensure that the people, once it has risen against the existing order, should win political rights for itself and not political privileges for its exploiters...

Direct universal suffrage is the first and most important demand of the Russian Socialists.... Their other demands... are very closely related: freedom of the spoken word, of assembly, of association, freedom to strike, etc., etc. The agitators must win the mass over to every one of these demands.

But from which stratum will the people’s representatives in the assembly be elected? Direct universal suffrage certainly does not guarantee that the workers will not elect their bosses, the poor peasants their kulaks or landowners and generally that the exploited will not elect the exploiters.

Direct universal suffrage is a double-edged sword which the government or the bourgeoisie can easily direct against us. How should we fend off their blows?

The worker will only stop voting for his boss when he recognises the irreconcilable contradiction that exists between his own economic interests on the one hand and the interests of the boss on the other.

As soon as he does recognise this, he will no longer want to be the political tool of the exploiter, and he will try to give political expression to his economic needs, he will give his vote to the Socialist.

The poor peasant will only stop voting for the kulak [rich peasant], the landowner, or the government candidate when the socialist workers’ party — in putting forward its well-known economic demands like those outlined above, for instance — demonstrates to him that there is a close connection between his interests and the interests of the revolutionary proletariat.

Consequently we come once more to the familiar conclusion that our political agitation will bear fruit for us only if it corresponds to the growth in the class consciousness of the proletariat.

The class consciousness of the proletariat is the protective layer that deflects, like water off a duck’s back, all the attacks of the parties opposed to us.

I am coming to the end. I have openly set forth our views on the tasks of the Russian Socialists in the struggle with the causes of the famine in Russia and I hope that now there can be no misunderstandings on that account. I welcome those who agree with them as comrades and I remind those who find them too ‘extreme’ that we are Socialists and in the eyes of Socialists moderation is by no means something to be proud of.

People will probably tell me that the time is not ripe for an open exposition of our views because this could frighten the liberals. To that I reply: it would be absurd on our part to frighten them deliberately; but if by chance they are frightened of us, against our will, then we can only pity their completely ‘inopportune’ timidity.

In any case for us the most insidious form of intimidation is the intimidation of Socialists by the spectre of the intimidated liberal. The harm done by this intimidation is infinitely greater than the advantage to be gained by convincing the liberal gentlemen of our moderation and our tender conscience.

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